YOUNGSTOWN Middle schoolers get a Lego up

Sponsors hopes to make the competition an annual event
YOUNGSTOWN -- In a test of ingenuity, creativity and Lego design, seven teams from grades five through eight competed Friday in the area's first Northeast Ohio Robot Competition for that age group.
Boardman Center Middle School, East Middle School, Hillman Middle School, Volney Rogers Junior High School and West Elementary School Gifted Program competed in the pilot event in the gymnasium of Stambaugh Stadium at Youngstown State University.
Sponsors hope it will become an annual competition next year.
"The best part was finishing -- putting the finishing touches on it because you know the competition will be soon," said 13-year-old Sophia El-Makdah, an eighth-grader at Volney Rogers. "You get really nervous and really happy knowing you get to come to YSU and compete."
The competition: During the eight-week project, each team designed robots from Lego kits provided by NEORC and its sponsors. By using a computer program and infrared rays, pupils designed programs directing robots to follow specific paths on command. Teams also prepared technical journals and presentations of their robots, and the projects were judged for their technical and artistic merit.
Then the fun part began.
Robots participated in four competitions: the bull's-eye run, inner and outer mazes, and the slalom. Trophies for the first three places were awarded in the four events, plus a trophy for best journal and presentation and for best design.
"I've had a lot of fun," said Jim Dravec, 14, of Boardman. "This is the first time I've ever done anything like this."
The Boardman Center pupil said his team of eighth graders spent time working on their robot before school, after school and during study halls. Their hard work paid off with an overall first-place standing.
East Middle School Team No. 1 had a bit of a tougher time.
The wheels kept popping off, new batteries caused circuit problems and the prepared program wouldn't load on the computer, reported team members Phillip True and Keymonnie Harris. The team of fifth graders was struggling but not defeated.
"They've worked hard," said their adviser Brian Veccia. "This is a tough program. They're learning a lot to work as a team. That's the key thing -- they're learning how to work together."
And it was a learning experience.
Disappointments: One team emitted a collective groan of disappointment as their robot capsized within the Inner Maze.
Another robot spun 360 degrees before losing its wheels at the starting line.
Despite a few minor mishaps, the robots generally stayed intact for the events, and the program's director was pleased with the outcome.
"We're every proud," said Arlene Floyd. "We want to hold middle school kids to the same standards we hold high school kids."
About NEORC: Founded in 1998, the NEORC is a consortium of engineering technology programs that provides applied learning and regional competition for pupils from Northeast Ohio. The aim is to inspire pupils toward studies and careers in engineering, science and technology.
The fourth-annual competition for high school students will be held in March.
The competition is a product of STEP UP (Science, Technology and Engineering Preparation for Undergraduate Programs), which is a part of YSU's Office of Associate Degrees and Technical Preparatory Program.

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